George Lucas Educational Foundation
Curriculum Planning

Teaching History Outside the Box

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How do you improve history instruction for young people? My advice might seem hopelessly out of touch with the realities that history educators face in classrooms every day. But as a complete heretic on the subject of history instruction, maybe I can add some outside-the-box ideas to the discussion.

The Wrong Reasons

I produce and host a downloadable audio production that focuses on history. The feedback we hear most often is from people who have discovered that they love history, but never before realized it. "Where are all the boring names and dates?" they often ask. When my two girls, ages twelve and nine, bring history-related coursework home, it seems almost designed to bore them.

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Then the chance to write this post arrived and forced me to consider two things:

  1. Why do we need kids to learn this stuff?
  2. What should they know to meet that identified need?

The hard reality we need to accept is that the overwhelming majority of students do not absorb or retain what history they are taught. This historical amnesia is on display everywhere. I watched something on television the other night where random passers-by were asked basic history questions by a producer holding a microphone. Of course the idea is funny to the audience because the answers of the interviewees are so unbelievably wrong. We all ask, "How could they not know that?" Despite having been taught history when they were in school, those interviewees either never learned the content or forgot it. This makes a mockery of any conceivable rationale for employing the same methods of teaching history that were used in the past.

Herein lies the problem. History is not taught to foster knowledge and the love of history. Instead, it serves subsidiary purposes, such as civic responsibility, patriotism, and pride in one's heritage. But that isn't what history is for -- we warp it when we try bending it to achieve such goals. (Do we do this with math or reading?) We mandate that kids must learn about this or that "important event" and then bore them to death with something that 90 percent of students will forget once the test is over. In the era where continuing education is an important lifetime endeavor, we should instead develop a love for studying the past by allowing students themselves to decide what they love about it.

History is Inherently Interesting

Everyone is naturally interested in history. How could they not be? Oral historians for thousands of years have held audiences in the palm of their hands with this material. History is full of all the elements that make great entertainment: drama, romance, war, crime, and fascinating characters. Truth really is stranger than fiction. If the only goal were instilling a love of history in students, then teachers would be out of a job if they couldn't accomplish that with the raw material the past supplies -- provided that they (or better yet, the students) got to choose the material.

If my daughters could develop a love of history from their pre-college exposure to the subject, I would consider that immeasurably more valuable than any specific knowledge of "important events" that they learned about. In college, those civic purposes we deem so important for K-12 kids to learn are going to be undercut anyway. University professors don't buy into the "subsidiary purposes" of pre-collegiate level history -- and in fact will actively work to deconstruct the whole idea.

Were I anointed History Czar, I would ditch the curricula entirely. These things are holdovers from another era of history instruction. My goal would be to get kids to love the study of the past by connecting to their affinities. Into music? It's got a history. Motorcycles? Fashion? Entertainment? Sports? Getting them to explore the history of a subject they already love is a great way to teach historical knowledge and how the current reality came to be. In the 21st century, this is the greatest practical value the study of the past provides. Each student is going to have different stories, eras, people, and places that get him or her excited.

I would encourage kids to pursue their interests and forget about what they "should" know. That's what we should teach them.

For more ideas about creative ways to teach the story of us and to help students become lifelong lovers of history, click here to listen to my podcast on the subject (MP3 file size: 18.3 MB), and think about how you might use this perspective in your own classroom.

Meanwhile, please share in the comments section how you engage students in the study of history.